Wear getting there
For the 22 years since its construction, the Tyne and Wear Metro should have been simply called the Tyne Metro because it predominantly wrapped itself around the Newcastle/Gateshead river and came nowhere near Sunderland, the city on the banks of the River Wear.
However, on 31 March this year, the new Newcastle to Sunderland light rail link opened to the public to a muted fanfare.
A heavy rail service has been in operation for many years running from Newcastle Central Station to Sunderland - including a few combined rail/metro stops on the way - continuing down the east coast to Hartlepool and Middlesbrough.
But the vision of an integral metro journey between the two cities was never on the cards until a funding partnership came together with sufficient resources for the initial feasibility and design work to commence.
Now, as a result of a Public Private Partnership between Railtrack and Nexus (the Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive, which runs the Metro), that connection has been made and the light rail link has even extended beyond central Sunderland to the west.
Extension jubilation London's Jubilee Line extension set high standards in urban transit specification and in underground station design aesthetics. Unfortunately, the Newcastle to Sunderland link has not met such exacting design expectations.
At a total cost of £90 million, the project is predominantly a civil engineering exercise, with the 'design' of stations and railway 'architecture' relatively incidental to the scheme. For such a small amount of money (in transport terms), the scheme includes 18.5km of track refurbishment, overhead electrification, a couple of level crossings, new and refurbished stations, car parking, utilities and increased safety measures; including new safety standards and new signalling infrastructure.
The section of the link from Pelaw to Sunderland uses the existing heavy rail network, which has been upgraded, while a defunct heavy rail track - the former Sunderland to Durham line - has been brought back into service to connect Sunderland with South Hylton.
Existing mainline train stock still uses the Newcastle to Sunderland line, but these trains are now timed to alternate with the timetable of the Metro's light-rail rolling stock.
Nicholas Pollard, former director of Railtrack London North East, said:
'This is the largest project in modern times that combines heavy and light rail on the same track.'
The existing main line had to undergo significant improvements to carry the new link.Harmonising safety standards (fortunately the track gauge for both systems was the same) has been costly, but was only possible because the partnering arrangement was between these two particular parties. By integrating with the existing Metro terminal at Pelaw, the entire line has been electrified and work includes the infrastructural provision for two braking systems; the heavy rail provided with Train Protection Warning Systems (TPWS), while the Metro continues with the more costly Automatic Train Protection (ATP).
Railtrack, currently still running the national rail infrastructure, let the contract for most of the new works to Skanska (the Finnish construction company specialising in major infrastructural projects). Skanska, in turn, contracted Corus Rail Consultancy (CRC) to prepare the design and engineering proposals for a number of the stations.
CRC was part of British Rail until the privatisation shake-up in the mid-'90s when it was acquired by British Steel (now Corus).
Work has been carried out on a design/build basis, with initial feasibility work commencing at the beginning of 2000 and the final design drawings being completed just nine months ago.
Work on the other stations - at Fellgate, East Boldon, Brockley Whins, Seaburn, Stadium of Light and St Peter's on the north bank of the Wear - was carried out by C Spencer of York, a company with a long-term maintenance contract with Railtrack.
A bridge too far Danny Marshall, chair of the Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive, enthuses that 'the people of Sunderland have waited patiently for a great public transport system like the Metro. Now they've got it and can see first hand the hard work and expertise which has gone into providing the Metro to Sunderland.'
In terms of the provision of a quiet, bump-free, regular and reliable service, the Newcastle to Sunderland link is certainly a pleasurable experience. Although no new rolling stock has been commissioned, there was apparently plenty of spare capacity in the existing stock of carriages, which convey 272 people per car (two cars per train) at 80km/hr in clean, spacious and comfortable conditions.
The new stations follow the corporate standard across the line, comprise basic waiting facilities, selfservice ticketing (relying on passenger honesty and regular inspections), and powder-coated steel cladding panels.
This specification has been maintained throughout the extended line with little imagination. A large percentage of the money, somewhat understandably, has been spent, and is seen to have been spent, on the engineering works, with massive retaining walls; acres of brick/blockwork; and ramps and stairways as far as the eye can see.
The retaining concrete to the bridge at Pallion is of particular note, resembling a skateboard park more than a retaining wall. The station's appearance gives the impression that money was running short here. Serving a desolate trading estate, it is apposite that the local Poundstretcher is visible from the platform.
Engineering works The stations are not exciting structures, seemingly designed to suit Nexus standards and specification checklists, with the correct quota of seats, signs, CCTVs, lighting, speakerphones, etc. The platforms have a rear drainage grille, a tarmac surface, tactile paving and pc concrete edging.
Walls are two-tone facing blockwork with profiled metal roofing, usually hidden behind high blockwork parapets.Occasionally, grey profiled metal is carried on grey steel supports.
One of the nicer stations, which breaks the mould somewhat, is St Peter's, situated high up on the existing listed arched viaduct. The arched glazed canopies flow into the glass walls, and the concourse area has opaque floor strips and a lift tower of structural glass blocks. The space is a refreshing change. However, the workmanship at the joints in the glazing leaves a lot to be desired.
The new interchange at Park Lane is not yet open. (Claims that the scheme works have been completed on time ignores the fact that many of the stations still have significant areas of cladding and external work to finish.When I was there, some platforms looked like building sites. ) The remainder of the stations are treated more like bus shelters than train waiting areas, built for costeffectiveness rather than design excellence. This could be said to reflect their transient function - as utilitarian local public transport structures for quick turnover, rather than longstay urban structures like mainline railway interchanges.
Trevor Richardson, civil engineering director for CRC, says: 'It is nice to make wonderful architectural statements and provide elaborate facilities but, in reality, building costs have to stack up. The priority is to get the stations built within cost.'
Maybe research could be done to ascertain whether users find that aesthetics play any significant part in the 'experience' of their journey. Apart from architectural commentators, what do people think of the new Jubilee Line extension stations in London, for example? Does it lift their experience of their daily London Underground commute? Or are they in and out too quickly to notice?
At the moment, in Sunderland at least, it seems that concern at a lack of architectural finesse in the new and refurbished stations comes a poor second to local people's appreciation of increased mobility. This railway has been a long time coming.